“Write down what’s in your head. Write what’s in your heart,” Peggy Wallace Kennedy told me she told her children when they first walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge years ago. What fine advice to follow after having walked the span with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) over the weekend.
The overwhelming experience was part of the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama organized by the Faith & Politics Institute. The jampacked schedule took us to key sites in the fight against segregation, from Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to the home of Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery. But it was the Saturday morning stop on the infamous bridge in Selma where the sweep of history washed over me to let loose a river of tears.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis and about 600 hundred other African Americans set off from Brown Chapel in Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. To get there, they had to traverse the Edmund Pettus Bridge. What awaited them on the other side were police donning gas masks and holding billy clubs. A two-minute warning to disperse gave way to an early advance that saw the line of law enforcement push over Lewis, a march organizer, and the demonstrators behind him. Swinging nightsticks were not obscured by the flow of tear gas. The clip-clop of police on horseback were no match for the shrieking from the assaulted. The nation sat in horror watching the scene unfold hours later on television. A historic moment that would be remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”
As members of Congress, survivors of the day and other guests listened to a prayer just over the crest of the infamous span, I walked further down. I needed to look out on what Lewis saw that day. I tried to imagine the view Lewis and the others had that day.
“I saw a sea of blue,” I’ve heard Lewis say to describe his view of law enforcement before him. I tried to imagine the fear that coursed through them as they contemplated the certainty of injury or the possibility of death that awaited them. But what made my tears flow was imagining their courage. Each painful step in their march for individual dignity drew them closer to slipping the yoke of Jim Crow for an entire people.
Standing on that bridge where heroes walked, I cried in thanks to people I didn’t know. Looking out on where they bled, I was awed by their selflessness and determination. I marveled at their belief that, despite the hatred all around them, their government would live up to its rightly cherished ideals. And I swelled with pride thinking about the example they set and what they accomplished. Doing all this with Lewis in the distance behind me amplified the power of the moment for me. But Lewis wasn’t the only survivor of “Bloody Sunday” with us.
Sheyann Webb was just 9 years old when she snuck out of her home next door to Brown Chapel to take part in the march. “Racism released its brutality upon us,” Webb said in a discussion with famed historian Douglas Brinkley after our bridge visit. “I’ll never forget running back to Brown Chapel,” she said of that day 52 years ago, “trying to make my way back home.” Webb recounted how Hosea Williams, another march organizer, scooped her up. But the grim scene elicited laughter when she told us she yelled for him to put her down because “you’re not running fast enough.”
“March 7th will forever stay with me,” said Dorothy Frazier, who was a student at Alabama State University in 1965, and was involved in protests in Montgomery. She revealed during the panel that she rarely talked about what happened and that she had a hard time forgiving. “How do I forgive,” Frazier asked, “how do you forgive people who want to kill you? I’m trying really, really, really, really hard.” But moments later, Frazier earned lengthy applause when she said, “Today, I think, while I’m speaking, I’m releasing the hate.”
It was as we walked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge back to the buses that Peggy Wallace Kennedy told me about the assignment she gave her children. And Kennedy said, “It breaks my heart” when she hears Lewis tell the story of seeing “a sea of blue” on March 7, 1965. Today, that sea of blue was a multiracial police escort from one point to the next on the pilgrimage over the weekend.
Kennedy is significant because she is the daughter of Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace. I’d never met her before this pilgrimage. But I’d written about her. In an interview with BuzzFeed last year, Kennedy talked about the troubling similarities between her father and Donald Trump. They both played on people’s fears for political gain.
In his later years, George Wallace sought redemption for his racist past and received it from the state’s African American population in the form of 90 percent of their vote in his successful third and final race for governor in 1982. And in her own right, Kennedy has become a powerful voice of reconciliation. Her speech at the Alabama state archives on Saturday was a prime example. I’ll share what she said in my next post.
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